Skip to main content
Five years ago, the New York Times declared 2012 “the Year of the MOOC." Online learning was the rage; campuses, less so.

Sometimes, it seems, revolutions can be described in haste.

While the onslaught of Massive Open Online Courses back then seemed like a death knell for traditional learning, mass online learning has struggled in its infancy, while demands for colleges and universities has never been greater.

Now that educators are settling in for the long haul of disruption, they’re discovering that technology and teaching go hand in hand. American MOOCs — led by Coursera and Udacity — are turning to pay models, more rigorous standards and better links with established schools. And post-secondary institutions are breaking down their own walls, equipping students, and teachers, with the power of technology to personalize learning, speed up instruction and reach the critical scale needed to amass enough data to make even greater leaps in the quality of education.

The latest #RBCDisruptors, featuring edtech pioneer John Baker and York University president Rhonda Lenton, asked if the post-secondary model is broken. The answer: in places. And it can be fixed.

Baker, who is the founder and CEO of D2L, a digital learning platform, believes the model can be improved dramatically through new ways of teaching and learning. Lenton, who took over the top job at York this summer, feels that while the model is not broken, it needs to change and evolve, which she argues, is already happening.

“Incremental change,” she said, “is happening but we are not yet seeing fundamental change.”

Here are some of the tougher issues they’re taking on:

Technology as Teacher

Like practically every other sector, technology is increasing its presence in the classroom, helping to personalize the learning experience by providing better ways of engaging students and enabling them to learn better.

Baker noted that instructing all students at the front of a classroom makes it very difficult to personalize to individual needs — such as tailoring lessons and giving real-time feedback.

Baker, who founded D2L while in his third year of studies at the University of Waterloo, also said that technology makes learning accessible to the blind, deaf and visually impaired, allowing them to move through learning as quickly as everyone else in the class. It also provides predictive data to understand a risk of a student dropping out of a class, by allowing the teacher to identify the warning signs early on, and uses AI to reach out to the student with personalized interactions.

Experience as Educator

Lenton emphasized that the term ‘experiential education’ (EE) cannot be narrowly defined. EE requires an entirely different partnership model between higher education and outside sectors, and should include public sector and non-profit organizations, not just businesses.

“The day of the ivory tower university is long gone,” said Lenton. What she predicts will happen is an increasing fluidity of campuses and outside sectors working together to shape the curriculum.

“York University has in fact made a commitment that over the next five years, every single program will have an EE component,” she said.

Flipping the Classroom

Rather than students spending all of their time in the classroom with an instructor at the front, they now can get the materials online, and use the class time to work together and apply their learnings. Think less one-to-many lecturing, and more using the physical classroom space to work collaboratively.

Baker believes that less time spent learning in the classroom is a big improvement on how the traditional model works, as time is our most precious commodity.

Campus of the Future

Both agreed that physical space will always play a large role in student experience.

“The one thing students don’t want to lose is the face-to-face opportunity to work together,” said Lenton.

Baker predicts that in the next five years, 50% of students’ course load will be done online, and universities may not need to build a new building every time they add thousands of new students. “It gives universities the ability to scale,” he said.

The Value of Education

Lenton, a first-generation student from a family of five siblings, always understood the incredible opportunity that higher education affords, in giving access to a research-intensive experience, and allowing one to realize their full potential.

“University graduates do very well,” she said, pointing out that 91% of university graduates are employed within three years of graduation, and that 86% of students are in an occupation related to their career.

Income-wise, Lenton noted, university graduates earn about $1 million more over their lifetime than college graduates, and about $1.5 million more than someone with a high school education.

From Courses to Competencies

Baker believes the largest opportunity in education is a shift to the outcome-based model for learning. This means moving away from “seat times” and pass/fail measures, and much more towards a competency-based model.

“When you graduate university you no longer are going to say, ‘I took this course and this program’, but, ‘I have these skillsets, I can think critically, here’s my research ability, and here’s my portfolio of all the work that I’ve accomplished’. That language is consistent with what you’re going to see later in life.”

Lenton added that universities are about providing students with transferable skills that will allow them to be flexible and adaptable to the fact that careers are changing constantly.

Disruption for Good?

“We really don’t see disruption as a negative. We see disruption as an opportunity to be embraced,” said Lenton.

Baker concurred, “sometimes we think about disruption as this painful thing we have to go through, and sometimes it is. But it’s also probably the single biggest opportunity in front of our educational institutions, and I can’t think of a bigger market opportunity for them to pursue than going through this transformation.”